In “The B-Side,” three men sing along with an album on a record-player — or, as people prefer to say these days, a vinyl on the turntable. But there’s a reason why the Wooster Group’s encore presentation of its simple and odd hour-long piece, first performed at the Performing Garage in 2017, is filling St. Ann’s Warehouse every night.
The album is “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” which was recorded by folklorist Bruce Jackson over a three-year period and released in 1964. On the stage, Eric Berryman, who conceived this show, serves as principal singer and narrator, occasionally reading from Jackson’s oral history “Wake Up Dead Man – Hard Labor and Southern Blues.” At the outset, he explains that the record consists of 14 a cappella “work songs, blues, spirituals, preaching and toasts. The men on this album were all convicts serving time down at the Texas Department of Corrections penal farms along the Brazos and Trinity rivers in East Texas.”
The 11th song was familiar to me:
I shall not, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,
Oh, I shall not be moved
I first heard this as a civil rights song, though it was “we shall not be moved.” Before that, it was a spiritual sung by the pious. But to the inmates on the road gangs of Texas State prison, it was a work song.
“This is a number we used to use when we was flatweeding out on the Ramsey,” one of them says, via Berryman’s voice, by way of introduction on the album.
“Flat-weeding,” Eric Berryman explains to us, “ is any work done with a hoe: building roads, busting clods after a tractor’s gone through and turned up dry ground, turning turf, cleaning ditches, chopping cotton.”
Accompanied by hand claps, the songs have the consistent, persistent, percussive, repetitive rhythm of the work the prisoners were performing while they were singing. (In the last song, “Forty-four Hammers,” we’re shown an old movie of their chopping to the rhythm.) But for all the similarities in rhythm, there is much underlying variety to these songs, and, beneath the simplicity, some striking nuance. There are songs full of womanizing and what we now consider incorrect language. There’s a song that reflects a then-current event: “Assassination of the President” is about the killing of JFK. Some are full of dark humor: In “T.B. Bees,” they make a toast to TB — tuberculosis:
I got a pain in my side and got a pain in my chest,
You know, that ain’t nothin’ but a letter from Death
…But as I got to go and you goin’ to stay,
Won’t you give me one of those old Chesterfield’s to help me on my way?
Berryman tells us the story of how this show came to be – how he discovered the album on Amazon, and was planning to e-mail the Wooster Group, because he had seen their production “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation” and wanted to do something similar with this album. By coincidence he ran into Wooster Group founding member Kate Valk when she was eating at the restaurant where he worked as a waiter; she liked the idea and became the show’s director.
Amazon, e-mail. But, somehow, during this 21stcentury karaoke, as the three men on stage reproduced the singing they were hearing via in-ear receivers, their live voices eerily took on the feel of an old record, a testament both to the singers and to the sound design. And “The B-side” seemed to embody what’s become an overused word: authenticity. It’s as if you could hear and feel each scratch, all hard-earned.
Here’s what the actual album sounds like:
The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons
The Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse
Directed by Kate Valk. Set by Elizabeth LeCompte, lighting by Jennifer Tipton and Ryan Seelig; sound by Eric Sluyter and Gareth Hobbs, video by Robert Wuss; costumes by Enver Chakartash; musical direction, Gareth Hobbs.
Cast: Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore
Running time: one hour, no intermission
Tickets: $41 to $56. ($21 partial view)
The B-Side runs through March 24, 2019